Imagine yourself as a young person during an era when there was no sex ed in high school. Sure, pornography exists, but you're more likely to get your hands on the smallpox virus than a properly illicit "French Postcard." The only depictions of sexuality you'll regularly encounter in your young life is the disturbing interactions of farm animals. And yet your wedding night approaches. How do you prepare yourself?
Well, you'll read any number of delicately worded advice books, written by people of apparent high moral standing and (usually vague) medical credentials. A sampling:
What a girl should know
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
First, the most important thing, as imparted to us by Emma Frances Angell Drake in 1902's What a Young Wife Ought to Know: "From the wedding day, the young matron should shape her life to the probable and desired contingency of conception and maternity. Otherwise she has no right or title to wifehood."
Now that your purpose as a woman has been made clear, how do you achieve it? It was assumed that all men approaching marriage had a rudimentary understanding of what was going to happen. But women of quality would not have been so exposed to rude talk, rumors, and basic knowledge of their own body. She might not even know the names and function of her own reproductive organs. This ignorance, says Walter Gallichan in 1918's The Psychology of Marriage, can be fatal:
But how much should a girl know to keep her from running screaming into the night or driving her to suicide? It depends on which expert you ask, but according to Maurice Bigelow in 1916's Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life, not so much as to make her too curious:
Bigelow asserts that a girl should only be taught that she has a vulva, not the parts that make up a vulva, lest she want to see or touch those parts of herself. Curiosity can lead to exploration, which can lead to…irritation.
Also, knowing too much is unbecoming in a bride. Men adore the fact you're ashamed of yourself, as Karl Heinzen explains in 1891's The Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations:
It's so adorable that you feel icky and confused, darling.
Make sure he knows you're going to want to maintain your human rights beforehand.
Bernarr Macfadden was not afraid to take on the controversial new idea that women have rights over their own bodies in his 1918 Womanhood and Marriage. He's willing to allow that women might be embracing this new fad. But it is of greatest importance that she tells her husband she feels this way before a wedding date is set:
The fact that a cow is a temperamental milker is not the sort of thing you spring on a poor guy after he's already bought her. Full disclosure makes for good business.
Before the actual consummation occurs, a few things should be considered. First, there is the physical condition of virginity. Nearly all 19th-century marital advice shuns the Biblical idea of blood proof of virginity. One Dr. Napheys says to know if your wife is truly a virgin, pay attention to her outer purity, not her inner membranes:
But if such a membrane is present, tender care should be taken. William Josephus Robinson, author of 1920's Sex Knowledge for Men, says that a truly loving husband will proceed with the deflowering of his wife very slowly, sometimes taking up to a week of gentle introductions before a full connection is made.
Sylvanus Stall, who writes in 1899's What a Young Husband Ought to Know, is not as generous in his timeline, but insists that if a wife is still hurting weeks after the wedding night, she should probably see a doctor:
Don't be in such a hurry to consummate, anyway. That fruit is going to taste pretty bland once it's no longer forbidden, according to Mrs. E.B. Duffey in her book The Relations of the Sexes: "Do not be in too great haste to brush the bloom from the fruit you covet. It will lose half its attractions at once."
No sex or bad sex makes women crazy
Robinson gets straight to the point when he says, "The bridal night is the most important turning point in a woman's entire life." Not just because this night will determine the success of the entire marriage (more on that later), but because, according to Gallichan, married sex is the only way a woman can keep her health. It's the only way to channel her anabolic energy:
Any woman who does not enjoy her sex life is at risk for insanity and illness. An interesting proposition that might still find a good many female supporters today.
Husband or beast?
Now let us revisit the subject of a husband coveting the forbidden fruit of his bride's love bud. New husbands are often driven mad by their desire to obtain this treasure. But be warned, one night of binging can wreck an entire life, says Mrs. Duffey:
Stall describes how an over-ambitious husband will ruin both his and his wife's life:
For all your innocent bride knows, you made up this weird thing you want to do to her. A certain amount of patience will show her that you care more about her person than her privates. Forget this, and you have personally created a woman who will hate you the rest of her life.
But then again, if a woman does not enjoy sex, her husband will begin to hate her:
The importance of restraint
Yes, the husband's health is as risk from over-indulgence. Even if a new wife is fond of the conjugal act, she must learn to restrain herself for her husband's sake. Less she drain him of his vital fluids. Macfadden explains:
Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance that if a couple is to have copious amounts of sex, that the woman be joyful and satisfied in the act. Otherwise, magnetic energy is not exchanged and you end up draining him like a sexual vampire:
As quaint as they seem to us, and as misinformed as they are, these books were trying to help. They were lights, however dim, in the fog of Victorian sexual confusion. They encouraged people to replace ignorance with education, selfishness with compassion. They didn't have the knowledge or values we have now, but the core ethic of trying to clear up rumor and confusion was still there, and is still admirable.
(Photos by London Stereoscopic Company, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, and ClassicStock/Corbis)
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.